By Paul Purcell
New Zealand has become a world-leader in preventing stillbirths, but still has work to do in order to achieve the international reduction target set by health experts.
While maternal and child deaths have halved in the past 15 years, stillbirths have remained persistently high with more than 2.6 million babies being stillborn worldwide in 2015.
An overwhelming majority, 98 percent, are in low and middle-income countries according to The Ending Preventable Stillbirths paper published in The Lancet medical journal today.
University of Auckland professor and co-author Lesley McCowan said while New Zealand continues to improve in its care of expectant mothers, there are still areas where the health system could get better.
"We've had a significant reduction in our stillbirths after 28 weeks. New Zealand can be proud about its statistics but we can still do better," prof McCowan told NZN.
"We've been counting the number of stillborn babies for a number of years and that enables us to pinpoint risk factors, to look at areas of higher and lower rates of stillbirths and try and look at preventative strategies."
New Zealand is one of the best performers in preventing stillbirths, with around 2.3 cases per every 1000 births in 2015, but remains well below Iceland's rate of just 1.3.
The global goal is to be below two cases per 1000 births.
Just 10 countries account for two-thirds of stillbirths, led by India with an estimated 592,100 cases in 2015 alone while a majority of African countries also lag far behind.
If the current rate of progress continues, it will be 160 years before a pregnant woman in Africa has the same chance of her baby being born alive as a woman in a high-income country today.
Study co-lead professor Joy Lawn from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine says there is still a misconception that many of the deaths are inevitable.
"Half of the 2.6 million deaths could be prevented with improved care during labour and childbirth, and additionally, many more lives could be saved with effective care during pregnancy," she said.
"The message is loud and clear - shockingly slow progress on stillbirths is unacceptable."
The study also investigates links between diseases such as diabetes and hypertension as well as obesity with stillbirths, with at least 10 percent of deaths attributed to these conditions.
A previous study revealed an incremental increase in the risk of stillbirth with weight gain between pregnancies with some mothers having up to a 50 percent higher chance of their babies being stillborn due to obesity.
Stillbirth rates in wealthy countries in 2015
1. Iceland - 1.3 per 1000 births 2. Andorra - 1.6 3. Denmark - 1.7 =4. Finland - 1.8 =4. Netherlands - 1.8 6. Croatia - 2.0 7. Japan - 2.1 8. Norway - 2.2 9. Portugal - 2.2 =10. New Zealand - 2.3 =10. Poland - 2.3
Source: The Ending Preventable Stillbirths series, The Lancet